What is Placemaking?

Placemaking: Is it a thing?

Absolutely! In fact, whether you’re aware of it or not, you have been a benefactor (or possibly victim, depending on the experience) of some degree of placemaking. Here’s a story of one experience of a public space which may help explain what I mean.

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“‘Why is no one else here?’. Public spaces should be activated, they should be places for community participation and gathering.”

Our local park

We used to live in the city, around the corner from a rare and beautiful thing: a large open stretch of lawn with a view of the city, the harbour and the mountain. For our family of four (six if you include our two dogs), this was gold. The park was fenced-in, with a broken tarmac basketball court at one end and a playground comprised of some rusty swings and a slide on the other end. We’d walk across there in afternoons so the kids could play and the dogs could stretch their legs. On a good day we’d be joined by other children or families in the neighbourhood. On a bad day, the kids and I would be alone in the park, left to wonder if that man sitting under the tree in the corner was a threat. For a long time we accepted what we had, what the city had provided, but with time I grew tired of the kids fighting over that one good swing. Many neighbours agreed, the park had such potential. Why was there no playground? I remember there was some discussion among neighbours over social media, and there were a few people particularly interested in getting a playground in there. I’m not sure exactly how it happened in the end but one day, we saw a jungle gym going up.  I have a feeling it was the church across the road from the park that finally ball rolling with the city. We had a playground!

The kids were thrilled and I hoped this meant more neighbourhood children would gather to play . On our first visit to the new jungle gym the park was quiet. We were greeted by a dad and his daughter who were using the old swings. Excitedly, we went straight for the new wooden jungle gym. It took 5 minutes of play before we realized that the monkey bars were way too high ( I couldn’t reach them from the ground) and were gradually inclined towards the next platform of the jungle gym. Was this CrossFit equipment? The balance bar had no rail alongside, requiring acrobat-level tightrope walking from my un-equally matched 3 year old. Who built this thing?

Today, the park remains underutilized and empty. An empty park is rarely inviting. The moment a park is too quiet, we’re left wondering if it is safe for children; if its safe to rest our eyes on that shady patch of lawn; if we can afford to keep our eyes on our book while we read on that bench. "Why is no one else here?”.  Public spaces should be activated, they should be places for community participation and gathering.

At base, placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Someone has decided on and designed how spaces are or could be used by the public. I’d argue that public spaces are most successful when those designing and deciding are the citizens who love and use that space.

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Best practice: Shaping our spaces, together.

Placemaking is the collaborative process where community members collectively reimagine and shape the public spaces that they share. Placemaking goes beyond the physical aspects of our environments (urban design, landscaping and furniture), giving consideration to the cultural and social factors that inform how a place is/could be used.

The purpose of placemaking is to maximise the shared value of the public spaces at the heart of our neighbourhoods. The goal is working together to turn good ideas into tried and tested interventions that improve the daily lives of all who use our shared spaces.

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Successful shared spaces.

A successful public space is one that offers comfort and utility to the diverse range of people who share it. The idea is that great public spaces offer inclusive ways for entire communities to participate meaningfully in their shared environments.

The Project for Public Spaces has evaluated thousands of public spaces globally and found that successful public spaces generally shared four qualities:

They are

  • Accessible: Public spaces that are visually and physically connected to their surroundings

  • Activated: Public spaces where people are engaged in activities

  • Comfortable: Spaces that are both experienced and perceived as safe and comfortable

  • Sociable: Places where people meet, bring others to visit and connect with community.

Local communities are the best at understanding and identifying their own needs and uses for spaces. They’re also the most equipped to make sure their shared spaces offer this by drawing on their collective resources and social capital. In my park story, imagine if our neighbourhood planned regular events at that park. Perhaps we gathered to paint and update the basketball court and planned a social game on the first Saturday of every month. Imagine knowing that the park will be bustling with activity regularly. Imagine knowing that when you visit the park, not only will you feel safe enough to stay there, you’ll feel connected to the community around you. You might, just might even meet your neighbours.

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My work

You can read more about my work here. Over the past four years I have researched and reported on the social, cultural and physical factors impacting the quality of local public spaces. She works in collaboration with NPOs as well as corporates to connect people with opportunities that promote well-being through enhancing their shared and built environments. I look forward to writing more here about public spaces, their important role in overcoming the social and spatial segregation in our local contexts. I’ll also show examples of what communities are doing all over the world to access well-being through improved shared spaces.

Sharyn Sassen is Neighbourly’s latest Neighbourhood Partner. Be sure to check out her website and stay tuned for more articles from her in the near future.

Image Credits: Jurriaan Snikkers, Nerea Martí Sesarino, shotinraww and Aaron Burden

100% mom. 80% Occupational therapist turned inclusive design & placemaking consultant. You do the math.